Barton Fink Would Be Pleased

I’ll have much more to say about Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man squaring off at this year’s Academy Awards in both the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay categories over at NYU Local later this week and next week (because of the Hebrew heavy subject matter, I’ve got my fingers crossed that my wonderful editor will let use the title “Challahwood” for the proposed two-part feature), but for now I’d just like to say that this is some uncommonly good decision-making on the part of the Academy.

Tarantino and the Coen Brothers are both known for their distinctive visual flair, yes, but they’re also writers to an extent that a lot of similarly accomplished directors are not. Watch the back-and-forth in Pulp Fiction or The Big Lebowski and notice how idiosyncratic the dialogue is–it’s not hard to nod and say “this is Coen Brothers dialogue” or “this is Tarantino dialogue”–without all of the characters’ voices blurring together. That’s a remarkable achievement in any medium. And it’s especially remarkable given how densely packed with information their dialogue can be. When, in Jackie Brown, Sammy J says to DeNiro: “What happened man? Your ass used to be beautiful,” that one line tells us things that a lesser screenwriter would have to bash us over the head with. And look at how the phrase, “I didn’t do anything” in A Serious Man becomes even more devastating each time it gets repeated. Tarantino obviously staked his reputation as a huge film nerd, but I’d argue that he shares with the Coen Brothers a distinctly literary sensibility that, more than the dense pop culture allusions, rewards multiple viewings of his best movies.

As for Best Adapted Screenplay, is there even a real choice? Armando Iannucci is a fucking genius, and every single line in In the Loop is profanity-laced poetry. The man is a master of wordplay, and it shines through even more than usual in the plot for this movie, in which some creative editing and a few ambiguous comments can spell the difference between war and peace.

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